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Part II: Chords

Return to part I

Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6

Chapter 1: Gareth

The rain stuck with us for three more days as we walked on down to the plains, ending just after we left the mountains. Screwy weather, but if anyone was still hunting us, they’d most likely seek a nice dry place to hole up and would find no tracks to follow if they didn’t. Both suited me just fine. Strangely, Bram didn’t mind the weather, though how anyone could enjoy slogging up to his ankles in mud for three days was beyond me. If I told you before that I didn’t mind the rain, I lied. But I wasn’t going to complain until he did, and I would bet I’d done more marching in mud than he’d done, so I slogged along beside him, wrapped in my misery. At least it was a warm rain.

But like I said, the rain had stopped by the time we entered the foothills above the plains surrounding Belfalas. It looked to be a few days march south, which was bearable. We stopped a while to let our boots and our feet dry, and that cheered both of us up. After a time, we got to walking again and Bram started humming a tune I recognized as one of the raunchier barracks ballads—one of my favorites. There were quirks to the tune I didn’t remember, but every city had its own versions and Bram had told me he came from farther west than I’d ever been. I chimed in with the words I knew, we mangled the harmonies together, and we taught each other new verses that would’ve made a new whore blush. What we lacked in skill, we made up for in energy, though I doubt we’d have pleased our friend Dariel.

Which was funny, come to think of it. After Grace’s little story, I’d been thinking about our singing friend and I could tell Bram was too. Sure, it was quite a story, but if it was just a story, why was I still thinking about it? The idea of death had long since stopped bothering me, so I couldn’t see how it would bother a minstrel... he’d be famous long after he died, unlike me. I owed my life and freedom to Dariel, but I’d begun to suspect I wouldn’t be here now if he hadn’t gotten me involved in the first place. So all in all, it would’ve been nice to run into him again so I could ask some hard questions.

Rounding a bend in the road, we spotted a roadside inn hidden away in a fold in the hills beside a stream. Bram and I spotted it about the same time, swapped silly grins, and broke into a run. We still had a few hours until sunset, but a soft, dry bed would be a nice change from cold, wet ground. That and a few pints of dark country ale would make life a whole lot more worth living. So we ran, hearts pounding, muscles burning, just for the fun of it. Bram had longer legs and much less weight to carry, so he beat me by about ten yards.

When I caught up, he was standing beneath the signpost, bent over with hands on knees, panting. I joined him, sweating like a horse. After we were breathing a little more normally, we straightened up and, leaning on each other, entered the courtyard of the ‘Eagle’s Nest’. The gate was open, but it was of heavy, well-braced wood, and the stone walls looked like they’d been built to hold off a determined raid. Only one other person was there, a lanky kid about fourteen years old, flipping a dagger one-handed and catching it by the point. He spotted us in mid-flip, caught the blade, and tucked it in his belt with a flourish. With his free hand, he combed a tangled mop of straw-blond hair from his eyes and looked us over, insolent. Then he bowed and walked off behind the inn without a word. Bram let go of me as we reached the door, and with a mocking bow, swept the door open for me.

I walked in with Bram about a step behind me, and stopped to look the place over. Everyone turned to watch the door as we entered, some less obvious than others, and I returned the favor... just to be polite, you understand. The bartender must have been the kid’s father, but either serving wench could’ve been the mother. A drunk was sprawled on the soiled mats beside the bar, snoring like a hog. Hanging from the low, smoke-stained rafters was a cage with thick bars that held a sickly bird that wasn't much to name an inn after. Of the other half-dozen occupants, five were the usual sort of travelers you saw in such a place, of no particular interest. The sixth, a freckled, red-headed minstrel, sat tuning some stringed instrument.

Having looked us over, everyone turned back to their own business. I finished my own slow survey of the room, then caught the eye of the nearest wench and took a seat facing the door, my back to the wall. Bram seated himself beside me as she came up to us with a saucy sway of her hips.

“What’ll it be, sirs?”

“For now, just four ales, your stoutest.” I leered at her, and she pouted prettily and swayed off to fetch our drinks. Up close, she was kind of pleasant looking, and I began thinking of what else I might order that evening. Bram had been watching, pursing his lips, disapproving. I licked my lips and gave him one of my best leers, and he just shook his head. When the drinks came, I paid the score, Bram having no money I’d been able to discover. We spent the next few minutes savoring the bitter, frothy brew, rinsing away the trail’s dust and replacing lost sweat.

The redheaded minstrel had finished with his instrument, so I beckoned him over. There was a risk such a gossip would learn something that might endanger us later, but the information his kind collected would serve us as we traveled to the east. Bram was still nursing his first drink, so I borrowed the spare and pushed it across the table to the minstrel. I raised my mug in salute and downed the remainder of mine, waving to the wench for a refill.

“Your very good health, sirs,” the minstrel toasted us, savoring the drink.

Bram spoke for both of us. “Welcome, traveler. Soothe your thirst and then tell us what news you have of the roads and towns nearby.”

The bard gave us a calculating look while he sipped at his drink. “I’ve heard of two murders to the west, both men of no great importance save for their high rank—one a baron, the other a hedge knight in a border keep. There’s talk, of course, that it was political and involved succession to various thrones, but that makes little sense for the knight. In the east, Somorrah continues to test Volonor's patience, but despite rumors of armed insurrection, there is as yet no formal civil war. I’m not sure how long that will last. The summer festival at Ankur will be starting in a few weeks, depending on the auguries, but sadly, I’m off to visit relatives in Arden. Poor timing, but family has its own priorities. Apart from that, it’s been a dull summer so far, with little news to earn me bed and breakfast, so I’d be eager to hear any rumors you two might...”

I interrupted him. “Tell me more of these murders.”

He sipped his drink, speculative. “Now you know as much as I do. I’ll learn more as I move farther west. Of course, if two fine gentlemen such as yourselves might have traveled from the west, perhaps you could save me a side trip to find out.” He cocked an eyebrow, not making any effort to hide the sudden interest in his eyes. Must’ve seen my look when he mentioned the Baron.

Bram, who’d sat and listened, leaned forward. “If we knew more, we’d be back west instead of here. We make our living hunting the carrion responsible for such things. Since we’re not in the west, perhaps you might know what we could profit from here?” He smiled the same broad, easy smile I was beginning to like, but his voice was cold as a midnight graveyard in winter. Our guest paled, downed his ale with a gulp, and made his excuses. Bram turned to me, and said in the same cold voice, “Bounty hunting is thirsty work, brother. You wouldn’t happen to have a spare ale handy, would you?”

Then his control cracked, and we both burst out laughing. Heads turned our way, but having seen how fast our last guest left, they were smart enough to look away again fast. The wench arrived with a pitcher of ale and refilled our mugs. Idle talk and a simple but tasty meal passed the next few hours. Just after sunset, we arranged for a shared room. Before lying down for the night, I made a few suggestions to the serving wench, and though she turned me down, she left the barn door open for another time. Back in our room, I mystified Bram by placing our chamber pot on its side, leaning against the door... just in case we had any uninvited guests. I wasn’t expecting anyone, except maybe the girl, but it never hurts to be safe.

***

I woke up fast, hand on dagger, and lay there listening. Soft breathing came from the other bed, and floorboards creaked down the hall. I opened my eyes part way, and by the dim light of the half-open door, I saw a thin outline slip inside the room. Other than freeing my knife hand from the sheets, I remained motionless as the visitor eased the door shut behind him and skimmed across the floor towards the beds. He bent over Bram first, making sure he was sleeping, and I poised myself for a quick thrust if he tried anything. Instead, he crossed over to me. I tensed my muscles and as he leaned over me, I sat up. Before he knew what was happening, my left hand had him by the base of his thin neck and my dagger was pressing on the yielding flesh at the base of his throat. He let out a thin squeak of surprise, then subsided, trembling. Bram rolled over on his side, but didn’t wake. I guess he wasn’t used to that much ale.

“You’d best be very quiet,” I told him. “My partner hates being woken up... unless, of course, you’re willing to provide him with a little entertainment before he kills you.” The trembling increased, but he stayed silent. I eased myself out of bed, still maintaining my grip, and marched him out into the hall with nary a sound. I braced myself for the light, but it was too dim to blind me. When my eyes adjusted, the thief turned out to be the boy from the courtyard. He was young enough I wouldn’t have to hurt him much. Even so, I kept a careful eye on his belt knife, so I could stop him if he got too brave.

“I’m kind of glad you dropped in on me,” I said, releasing his neck and holding him against the wall with the point of my knife. “Where I come from, they remove a thief’s hand, unless they decide his head would make a better trophy.” The kid shuddered, and might have slumped if the dagger hadn’t been in the way, but he’d gotten over his initial shock and met my gaze, defiance in his eyes. I smiled. “But then again, we’re not back home, are we? So instead, I’ll just make this a profitable experience for both of us.” I plucked the knife from his belt with my free hand, then eased up on the dagger. “Don’t carry a weapon if you’re not ready to use it. Were it me, you'd be dead for not disarming me.” I turned my back on him and reentered the room, resetting the useless lock and replacing the chamber pot.

Bram was still sleeping like the dead from the ale's aftereffects. Seeing him looking so peaceful, I couldn’t resist temptation, so I catfooted over to his bedside and plunged the captured weapon into the pillow beside his head. He woke faster than I’d expected, fast enough to brush my wrist as I withdrew; maybe he wasn’t as unconscious as I’d thought. Then he recognized my laughter.

“We had a visitor, bro’,” I said, and lay back down on my rumpled sheets, smiling to myself in the dark. I could feel his question coming, so I spoke first. “He’s still alive, and lots wiser.” Bram snorted, then removed the knife from his pillow and placed it beside the bed.

I fell asleep quickly, and the rest of the night passed uneventfully, though I’ll bet Bram slept more lightly.

***

Morning arrived, and with it came the rain I’d hoped we’d left behind in the mountains. I lay in bed, hearing it drum on the roof, and hearing people bustling about the downstairs. The room was cold as only a midsummer morning can be, long after your body’s forgotten about winter. Bram was still sleeping, so I dressed and left him in bed. The inn’s common room was empty except for the minstrel, who returned my nodded greeting, wary as a chicken right before mealtime. For a moment, I toyed with the idea of playing with him, but I decided to leave him alone and head to the stables for some exercise.

There was a broad open area in the center, strewn with hay, where the horses could be tethered to be brushed and shod, with the hayloft entrance just above it. Good enough. I stripped off my shirt, drew my sword, and began working through a tough pattern of cuts and parries. It was cold enough I had to work for a while before I raised a sweat, but I kept on until I was breathing hard and scattering sweat with each move. I stopped when my muscles began to burn, and went to wipe my face on my shirt. As I did, I heard a noise behind me, and whirled to face it with my sword.

It was the young thief from last night, eyes scared but holding his ground anyways. That took guts. “Back to try your luck again?”

He glared. “I was just watching. You’re good, you know.”

I nodded. “Yeah, I know. Now get lost before I show you just how good.” His eyes widened, but he shook his head and stood firm. “Didn’t you hear me? I don’t like repeating myself.”

“Even if you are a murderer, like the minstrel thinks, you wouldn’t dare kill me in my own inn. Everyone would hear.” His jaw trembled, but the kid had balls. I saluted him with the sword, then sheathed it and reached for my shirt.

“You must want something pretty bad to still be here.” I wiped my face again on my sleeve.

“I want my dagger back. It’s all I’ve got.” Still defiant, but not so scared any more.

“Sorry, kid, spoils of war. You should’ve thought of that before you tried to rob us. If I were you, I’d be happy just to have all my fingers in working order. Now why don’t you go and tell your mom she wants you?” I watched his face fall; he was probably telling the truth about not owning much else other than the clothes on his back, and he'd probably stolen the knife.

I sighed. “If you want to use weapons, you should at least learn the right names. It’s not a dagger, it’s a knife: daggers have two edges, knives only one.” I started for the common room, but stopped and faced him again when I felt a hand on my arm.

“Look, I’ll pay you for it. I’ll even fight you for it.” That startled me.

“Did I hear you right? That sounded almost like a challenge. I’ve got the choice of weapons, then. What if I choose swords, or fists even? I’ve killed full-grown men with both.” I flexed my hands in front of his face; he was thin enough I could probably grip his whole head in one hand. “You wouldn’t last a minute.” He looked like he was going to cry, surprising given how much spunk he’d shown until then. But the world’s full of dead heroes who’d enjoyed the idea of heroism a little too much, and this one needed a lesson. I shrugged off his hand, and the half-formed idea that had come into my head, and left the stables.

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Chapter 2: Bram

Gareth was gone by the time I rose from my blanket into a bitterly cold room. I dressed in a hurry and belted on my sword and the new knife, then headed downstairs for breakfast. I smiled at our friend the minstrel, the room’s only occupant, then moved over to warm my hands at the hearth. One of the serving women entered while I stood there, her arms full of wood. We smiled politely at each other and I asked her to bring my meal when she was done. Though my chill was gone, I chose a seat near the fire before she returned. I had lived in military encampments or camped on mountainsides for so long during the past year that I was looking forward to enjoying the homely comforts of fresh food and warmth—something I missed more than I had believed I would.

More mundane considerations intervened; I had forgotten how awkward it was to try to sit with a sword at my hip, and I was obliged to remove the belt and lean the sword against the hearth. The meal arrived while I was figuring this out. It was simple fare, bread and sausages and a few eggs, but a nice change from field rations. I at heartily, and had almost finished when I heard the sound of horses in the courtyard over the drumming rain. By reflex, I turned my chair slightly towards the door and went on eating. The door opened soon afterwards, and two men in rain-slicked oiled cloaks entered the room. With a cursory glance around the room, both walked straight to the hearth and began peeling off layers of wet clothing. I pretended to pay them no heed, but nonetheless noted the jingle of chainmail and saw the light crossbow one man propped against the hearth stones and the other’s scabbarded longsword. As surreptitiously as I could, I moved my chair farther from the table.

When they had finished warming themselves, they surveyed the room more carefully. Their eyes met for a moment, then they moved towards me one a step behind the other.

“Good morning, gentlemen. A miserable day for travel, is it not?” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Gareth entering the room through the stable door, flushed from exertion. He took in the situation at a glance and faded back through the doorway, unseen. I stopped my dagger partway to my mouth, a fat chunk of sausage impaled on its tip. “Please be seated. You look like you could use some rest and hospitality.”

The hindmost stepped aside, crossbow coming crisply up to his shoulder and centering on my chest. Not wishing to tempt fate, I relaxed. With an eye on his trigger finger, I raised the sausage until I could pop it in my mouth. I chewed, feeling my stomach muscles tensing and my heartbeat accelerating.

“Unless I miss my guess,” said the first, “you’re one we’ve been looking for. Put that dagger down and put your hands behind your head.”

I was on the verge of complying when the minstrel's voice came from across the room in a stage whisper. “Being of an inquiring mind, I’m wondering whether you’ll have time to pull the trigger before you die. Not that it matters much, either way.” The crossbowman turned his head very slowly as I craned my neck to look past him. The minstrel stood behind the bar, paler than before but with the innkeeper's crossbow held rock-steady and directed at the crossbowman’s back. “Do yourselves a favor and carefully—fingers only, mind—drop your weapons into the fire for me." The crossbowman hesitated. "Quickly now, my finger might slip. There’s a good man.”

Both men slid their weapons into the hearth and lifted their hands into the air, though it looked for a moment as if they might still resist. Gareth entered the room, an amused look spreading across his face. Our unexpected ally adjusted his aim to a point between the two captives and everyone save the two bounty hunters had begun to relax when there came a sudden disturbance. The fire's heat had weakened the crossbow’s cocking mechanism enough for the bow-wire to slip loose, and there came a sudden flat snap! as the released quarrel flew in the general direction of the bar.

Gareth dodged for cover, knocking over a table in the process. Both bounty hunters dove aside, the bard’s panicky shot missing them and sending me diving for cover myself. I took a moment too long recovering, tangled in my chair, and the bigger man was on me before I could do more than start back to my feet. As he upended the table at me, I leapt back, dagger slashing to keep him at arm's length, but unable to get past him to reach my sword. There was no sign of Gareth, and the other man had charged the bard, a chair raised overhead. He was fast, and only a desperate dodge and the intervening bar saved the redhead from a crushed skull.

My own opponent circled the table, swinging his heavy cloak to snare my dagger. He looked to be more experienced at this sort of infighting than I was, so I slashed at his head with my dagger and charged, hoping to distract him long enough to grab my sword. But he was waiting for me, and caught the dagger in his cloak, scattering rain in a fine mist as he drew my arm down and to the side. We collided, and fell sideways together across the upended table and thence to the floor. He landed on top, winding me, and before I could squirm clear, he had both hands locked about my throat and a knee on my knife hand. I hunched my neck down, gaining a respite, and swung with my free hand to scratch his face, gouge his eyes, or do anything to loosen his grip, but I was too well pinned to land an effective blow.

With a desperate twist, I drew the new knife Gareth had given me and tried to plunge it into his side lefthanded. But the chainmail saved his life, and he pounded my head against the floor in thanks. Dazed as I was, strength ebbing, I would have died if Gareth had not arrived at that moment, lifting my assailant off of me with a mighty kick. Before the wounded man could recover, Gareth flattened his nose with a second kick and took him out of the fight. I got to my feet, shaking, as my savior whirled and bore down on the second man at a run. Still clutching his chair, he swung just a bit too late as Gareth moved inside his swing, caught him by an arm and a leg, and lifted him off his feet. Dropping the chair, he swung wildly with his free arm, but missed.

All of this took longer to tell than to pass; by the time the chair had hit the ground, Gareth had swung the smaller man against the wall as if he were no more of an impedance than a bale of hay. With a whoof! of expelled air and a dazed look, the man slid limply to the floor.

In the sudden stillness, the minstrel crawled out from behind the bar and our landlord entered from the kitchen, hatchet in hand. With an obvious effort, Gareth controlled himself, gasping for breath. The innkeeper looked about the room and began gearing himself up for an outburst, but stopped when he saw Gareth’s look. Instead, he laid the axe slowly on the bar, held up both empty hands, and looked about him in distress.

I reached down and began rummaging through my erstwhile assailant’s gear until I found his purse. I tossed it to the innkeeper, who looked startled but plucked it nimbly from the air nonetheless. His woebegone look changed to gratitude.

“Keep what you feel is appropriate, and mind, do not try to cheat us.” Then, breathing as deep as my bruised throat and pounding heart permitted, I moved over to Gareth, who was bleeding from a cut on his forehead. “What happened to you? So far as I could tell, no one laid so much as a hand on you.”

He reached up to mop at the blood, wincing. “They didn’t. When I dodged the crossbow bolt, I hit my head on the table. Hurts!”

Repressing a grin, I went to help the minstrel to his feet. He was shaken, but otherwise unhurt, and was already on his feet by the time I got to him. He glared a warning. “Nay, bounty hunter, I have no need of your kind’s help. I’m fine.”

I was puzzled. “If you feel so strongly, why risk your life to help us?”

Revulsion filled his voice. “Because, as you guessed so well last night, I have no love for the men of Arden.” He brushed back his long hair to reveal a brand scar on his forehead. Face gone tight and grim, he edged past me and towards the rooms, repositioning his hair as he went. His shoulders were tight, as if he expected a dagger thrust, and he relaxed only when he reached the doorway. There, he turned, an ugly suspicion growing on his otherwise pleasant face.

“Go in peace,” I said. “We are not hunters of men, and even were we, you would have earned your freedom.” Surprise replaced the suspicion, but without another word, he turned and left.

As we talked, Gareth had given the two downed men another knock on the head to quiet them and had begun to truss them up with their own kit. When he was done, he took them back into the stables and returned with a pair of blacksmith’s tongs. Gingerly, he reached into the fire and removed the glowing sword. From the stables, the blond youth followed, a bucket of water in his hands. Standing well back to avoid the steam, he watched Gareth quench the weapon. My companion then sat by the fire and began removing the charred leather grip with his dagger.

With the post-battle tremors beginning to leave me, I watched while he scraped the grip clean and began checking the fastenings on the tang. Behind me, nervous servants had begun cleaning up the mess. Now that peace had returned to the inn, I went to check on our friends in the stable, not being quite so sanguine as Gareth about these matters. My fears were unfounded, for they sat facing each other, bound to large support beams by ropes passed beneath their armpits. I examined them, and finding their bonds loose enough to permit circulation of blood and more or less easy breathing, I relaxed and left them there.

Back in the common room, I opened the door and looked out at the falling water. As I stood there, the rain drumming upon the roof doubled in force, accompanied by a deafening roll of thunder. Clearly, we would be going nowhere today, so I closed the door. Gareth still sat by the hearth, blond attendant by his side, finishing the leather wrappings of a new grip for the sword. The two looked up as I came to stand by them, then returned to their task when I pointed at the roof and shook my head. I returned to the fire, righted the table, and seated myself, putting my boots up before calling for mulled wine and a new breakfast.

The innkeeper returned the purloined purse when he brought the wine, and I was pleased to note it remained heavy. I hung it at my belt and sipped at the wine, feeling peace come creeping back. Homely comforts, indeed—but by the evidence, it was safer camping on a hillside with no company but the wild beasts.

The dancing flames combined with the wine to mesmerize me, and before I knew it, I had drifted into a shallow sleep.

***

The discordant ringing of steel on steel brought me out of my dream an indeterminate time later. The dream, red with blood and the cries of wounded men, slipped away from me, leaving me groping for my sword before my vision had cleared. The sound came from the stables, and my first thought was that our captives had escaped. I took a tighter hold on my blade and moved towards the fight, but something stopped me. I listened a moment and soon it became clear what had puzzled me about the noise: it was too halting and arrhythmic to be combat, and between exchanges, I heard a low murmur of voices. That was sufficiently curious I sheathed my sword and crept to the stable door.

I arrived in time to see the innkeeper’s son, sword in hand and sweat trailing from his chin, lurch past me in hot pursuit of Gareth. Gareth himself moved gracefully backwards, parrying the occasional wild swing. As I watched, he performed a casual stop-thrust and closed with the boy, shouldering into him and sending him sprawling to the straw. Clearly, Gareth knew something of fencing, a surprise given that most of the swordplay I had thus far seen in the Eastcountry was the hack-and-slash variety. A point worth remembering.

“No, no, a hundred times no!” Gareth leaned over his hapless student. “If you’re going to thrust with that thing, at least get your feet under you first. And wait ’till I expose myself—if you thrust while I’m on guard, you’re begging to lose an arm." He sighed deeply. "On your feet and let’s try again.” He grabbed a shoulder and heaved the youth upwards, the youth’s feet leaving the floor, then gave him a solid thump on the shoulder once the youth had recovered his balance.

Curious, I watched to learn more of this side of Gareth, ruefully remembering my own painful initiation in the art of the sword. The two charged back and forth across the trampled straw. Now and then, Gareth knocked the lad down, then sprang back on guard as his student clambered back to his feet. The lad was strong and quick, but the sword grew ever heavier in his untrained hands, and he began to slow down. I winced in sympathy, remembering many a morning when I could barely open my hand against the cramps of the previous day’s training. Finally, though, Gareth disarmed the youth with a ringing blow to the sword hilt. As the blade spun across the straw, Gareth clapped a hand upon the exhausted youth’s shoulder, keeping him on his feet.

That was my cue to leave, and before they entered the room, I was back on my chair, feet on the table and peering through my eyelashes. The boy limped off towards his own quarters, propelled on his way by an affectionate slap on the back that sent him staggering. Seeing me asleep, a mischievous look began to form on Gareth’s broad face, and he began stalking in my direction. Having no desire for a drenching in lukewarm wine—or worse—I feigned a large twitch and, yawning, opened my eyes. I ignored his disappointed look, and greeted him cheerfully.

Muttering something, he moved off to arrange for a tub of warm water. I smiled at his departing back.

***

Gareth shook me awake the next morning, and slapped a tray laden with breakfast onto my lap as I sat up, rubbing the sleep from my eyes. He sat at the foot of the bed, spearing great chunks of ham on his dirk and conveying them steadily to his mouth. I mumbled a bleary good morning, which he returned with an airy wave of his free hand. I stretched, still tired. Judging by the sounds from downstairs and the absence of any birdsong, the sun was not yet up, though the fastened shutters prevented a more direct check. Gesturing with his dagger and mumbling around a mouthful of egg only earned Gareth a blank look. He swallowed, and repeated himself.

“We’re leaving as soon as you’re finished.” Gulp. “Can you ride a horse?”

“Like a knight of Amelior,” I responded, regretting it instantly and wishing I were a little more awake. “But that isn’t the problem. If we are caught on horseback, how will we convince anyone we have the legal right to our mounts? Neither of us can pretend to be nobility or their servants.” That logic still rang false, but I was not yet sufficiently awake to figure out why. I reached for my own knife and began cutting my own thick slab of ham into bite-sized pieces.

Gareth choked down another huge mouthful, then followed it with a tremendous swallow of ale and a gulping intake of breath before responding. “Think again, bro’. It’s true that only knights and nobles can own a warhorse, but anyone fast enough to make off with a riding horse before the sheriff arrives can ride it freely.” In retrospect, that made sense. Another gulp of ale vanished. “All thanks to his royal nibs in Volonor, and now it’s pretty much custom everywhere.” He had stopped eating, and was watching me closely. “You must have come from pretty far west if you’re that ignorant. Where’d you learn to ride?”

Think fast, Bram! I chewed on my mouthful of ham, buying time, then took a slow, appreciative sip of my ale, and watched his suspicion grow. I made my answer casual while I reached for more ham. “I grew up on a ranch north of Kelfan, and I bent the rules now and then when no one was around the stables. I guess I had a natural talent.” Then I told him again of the fight at the border keep, exaggerating my difficulty with the horse and explaining how it had thrown me and escaped into the night.

He sat still a moment, suspicions partially allayed, but the implausibility of me turning loose a horse once I had one convinced him. He let the subject drop, finishing well before I did and telling me to meet him at the stables when I was done. I finished my meal more slowly, knowing it might be long before the next opportunity to relax again, and wondering how I was going to keep Gareth convinced of my lie. When I was done, I joined him downstairs. He had already saddled the horses and tethered them outside the stable door. They were two fine brown geldings that had presumably belonged to the bounty hunters.

This reminded my conscience that the two men had been bound all night, and I started back to the stables to check on them. Not wanting to undermine my story, I omitted checking the saddle’s girth strap, hoping Gareth knew what he was doing. Gareth held out an arm across my path. “Mount up. We can’t afford to wait all day.”

“I was just going to make sure our prisoners survive until someone comes to rescue them.”

His reply was perhaps a little too casual. “Don’t worry about it. They won’t be any trouble.”

The storm had broken during the night, and light was spreading in the clear sky. Despite this, a shadow passed over me. I stared at Gareth, disbelieving, for I now took his meaning all too clearly. I struggled to reconcile this with the Gareth I had come to imagine I knew so well, and I failed.

He read my thoughts and grew defensive. “Bram, what would you have done? If we left them here—I buried them in the field behind the inn—they would’ve killed or abused the innkeeper and his family soon as they got free, and then they’d have come after us again soon as they found new mounts. It was the easiest solution.”

I shook off his arm and leapt into the saddle of the smaller horse. Gareth looked up, searching for approval and finding none. There was judgment in my eyes, and the confusion I had been avoiding dealing with for far too long broke free at last. “There was no need. We could have sworn them to leave off their pursuit. There was no need, Gareth.”

I wheeled my horse and set off at the fastest gallop it could manage, ignoring Gareth’s stunned look, and for that moment, not caring whether he followed.

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Chapter 3: Gareth

I mounted as soon as I got over being startled, and followed him eastward. He had a good lead, though, and rode like a born horseman. It surprised me I couldn’t catch him ’cause I’ve been riding for years now and I’m as comfortable on a horse as on foot. A rancher, huh?

Eventually, he reigned his mount to a trot and then to a walk, letting me catch up. We walked that way for a while, neither wanting to be the first to speak. After a time, he stopped his horse and stood for a moment, not meeting my eyes.

“Gareth, I... I apologize for blowing up on you like that. You were right... I just needed time to accept it.”

“Yeah, right. I mean... there wasn’t much else I could’ve done, not and been fair to the innkeeper or to us. I just forgot you don’t have much experience with this kind of thing. I...”

He turned in the saddle, stopping me with the look in his eyes and speaking so softly I almost didn’t hear him. “The fact is, I am probably more experienced with this kind of thing than you are. But that is a side of me I have tried to bury forever. I thought I had succeeded, but you keep reminding me maybe I did not and should not have tried.” He looked away again, eyes cast towards the rolling plains to the south, relaxing in his saddle. “You saw it in me too, or should have.”

“You know, I thought you were a mite too good on horseback for a farm boy. Care to talk about it?” The silence dragged on until I started feeling uncomfortable. Then he started up again, voice more tense than I’d ever heard in him before.

“I have been riding since before I started shaving. For more than a dozen years I was half man, half horse. It was what made me a knight.” He turned on me, amused and bitter at the surprise that must have been showing. “No, brother, I was not joking about riding as well as a knight of Amelior—I was one. For ten years after I won my spurs. And I was good, a shining example of the breed.”

He swallowed hard before continuing. “Gareth, I led the final charge at Kardmin the day we broke their knights once and for all. Then I was first through the breach, and first into the streets.”

I whistled, high and long; the Kardmin campaign was still talked about more than a year after news of it reached us in the east. It was said to be the bloodiest campaign of our time, and mercenaries still went quiet if the name was mentioned. Come to think of it, I was sure I’d heard the name ‘Bram’ before, from a Kardmin mercenary I once served with. His story was that one of Amelior’s princes had fallen during the battle, and that as a result, one of every ten surviving enemy soldiers had been put to the sword. The story’d probably grown in the telling, like they do, but whatever the truth, he and others had spread tales of something much nastier than the usual kinds of skirmish we fought here in the east.

There was respect in my voice when I spoke. “But you’re here on land the Gordons of Volonor swore they'd hold to the last drop of their blood before letting an Ameliorite in!”

He laughed bitterly. “True enough. But Volonor is the least of my problems.” He paused, took a deep breath and went on. “I could have stayed and had power, riches, wine, women, my own songs, and everything else I should have desired. In time, I might even have had my own land and a position on the king’s council, even though I was never in line for the throne. But something happened during the sack of Kardmin. Maybe I saw too many men slain out of hand after giving their parole, or perhaps I began to wonder about things I had always believed without question. All I know is that I found myself some time later, wandering in the wilderness, near no landmark I could name. My first thought was to return and reclaim my command, but I could not force myself to do so.”

“You deserted?”

“I did far worse. My understanding is that here in the east, your armies are held together by feudal ties and the fear of discipline. In the west, we follow the old ways.”

I swore. “You broke a bloodoath!”

 “I did. Something inside me had broken, and it took most of a year before I could begin making it right again. I survived by luck, but I have spent the time wondering when my doom would catch up with me. Gareth, I tried then and have been trying ever since to understand and justify what my countrymen were doing, but I could not accept conquest for its own sake.” He paused again, and looked embarrassed. “Have you ever wondered where we go when we die?”

I licked my lips. “Never spent much time on it. It’s going to happen sooner or later, and while I’m betting on later, I’m not hung up on it. Whatever’s going to happen, there’s nothing I can do about it either way unless I can find one of those wizards your little witch was talking about and buy myself immortality.”

“Gareth, I know no better than you do, but if this life is all there is, what right do I have to deprive anyone of that brief existence? I have no such right, yet I have taken that right upon myself more times than I can count, and for no higher purpose than the preservation of my own life or the expansion of my king’s territories. That seems fundamentally wrong, and for the life of me, I cannot say why.”

He dug heels into his mount’s flanks and moved off again, not looking back, and I followed him in silence. What do you do when your friend lays bare his heart for you and starts prodding it to see where it hurts most? I’d started to like Bram a fair bit; he was a good man and I’d begun to feel his presence made me a little more complete, like friends do. I mean, when was the last time I’d run a footrace just for the fun of it? And played a stupid prank like with the kid’s dagger? I’d been feeling pretty good about having a companion I could trust, and then this. An oathbreaker, and I’d bound myself to him!

Even so, he was my brother by spilled blood, our own and that of our enemies, and on top of that, I’d grown to like the guy. I shrugged. Getting involved with this Dariel fellow seemed like it might be the kind of price Bram would have to pay for his broken oath, and I’d already seen the worst the bard could do and survived. On the whole, it was no reason to break my own oath—even if the idea didn't scare the piss out of me. I let out my breath in a long sigh, unaware I’d been holding it in. With that decision made, I could get back to the business at hand.

We rode in silence the rest of that day, each deep in our own thoughts.

***

Night came and we found a good campsite by a stream. Bram looked after the horses while I collected firewood. There was a rotting willow on the other bank, so I splashed across and returned with enough wood for the night. It was punky, half-rotten stuff, but still burned well enough once it got going. I sat on my haunches to feed the fire and make sure it kept burning. Bram sat on the other side and watched.

“Feeling better?” I ventured.

“Well enough.”

“Hey, look. You don’t have to keep traveling with me anymore. I’ll release you from this. I understand you can end an oath safely if everyone agrees to it—not that I've ever done this before.” I pointed at the scar on my palm. “If you’d feel better about it. You didn’t choose the oath freely, so I shouldn’t hold you to it.”

He looked thoughtful again. “When I first took the oath, it was because I did not know whether I could trust you with my back turned. Even though I had just saved your life. After that, I held to the oath because you did... and because I had learned to trust you and respect you... and even like you." He grinned wryly. "When you saved my neck—quite literally—at the inn, I knew I had chosen well. Then you went and killed those two bounty hunters, and all of a sudden I was no longer sure. All of a sudden I no longer knew what to think or do.”

His face softened, relaxing for the first time today. “We live and learn, or we stop living. You and I, Gareth, live in this world, not the next one if a next one indeed exists, and it does not make things any easier to deny what we are and what we must do to survive. Gareth, whatever else I may be, I am also a warrior, born and bred to the job. I cannot be true to myself and pretend otherwise. I may always remain unsure, but I can make myself believe there are sometimes no good alternatives. You did what was best at the inn. Thank you for bearing with me while I figured that out.”

I looked at him blankly, ’cause a dagger had appeared in his left hand. Slowly, deliberately, he drew it across his palm. Blood welled up from the cut, glistening in the firelight. “I took an oath once out of fear and uncertainty, as our ancestors did during the Exodus. Will you take that oath with me again in friendship and trust?”

I walked around the fire, knelt by his side, and took the dagger from his hand. Some blood ran down the blade and onto the hilt as I watched. I drew the blade across my palm as I'd done once before on a mountainside in the dark. We clasped hands hard. “ ’By our mingled blood are we bonded, companions in all adversity and oathbrothers henceforth.’ ”

“ ’Sword brothers in name and deed, by spilled blood of foe and self. While together, let neither fear his back shall go unguarded; while apart, let neither permit a wrong to the other to go unavenged.’ ”

It sounds crazy now, but there was something hovering about us in the dark as the oath finished. And there was a strange burning in that mingled blood.

***

With that behind us, a weight was lifted and we made better time, learning more about each other by sharing a few carefully chosen stories. We went well together, and the second oath just confirmed it. For me, it was a new feeling to have someone I could depend on, and who would depend on me that much—it wasn’t something you grew used to as a mercenary whose comrades came and went, following wherever the money led. Having done much the same thing myself for far too many years, come to think of it. It was a sobering, uncomfortable feeling, and by the time the farm town of Belfalas appeared on the horizon, I was more than ready to get rid of it.

Belfalas sat in the middle of rolling plains, in the crotch between two large rivers and midway between Arden’s mountains at our backs and the mountains ahead, which hid Ankur. Judging from the traffic, it was as prosperous as I'd heard, both from its own farms and from river traders and fishermen. Even from across the river, where we waited impatiently for the half-sunk ferry to cross the sluggish waters, you could see the old stone walls were never meant to hold off a siege. Maybe they would have done some good early on, but not once things got peaceful and the city turned to farming and townsmen had overflowed the walls. If anyone got even half-serious about expanding their borders into these plains, the rivers would provide more protection.

The ferry struck the dock with a squishy thud, and we led our horses aboard. I paid the fare, wincing at my nearly empty pouch. “Bram, my brother, we’re in need of some honest work... and soon. Otherwise, we’ll be sleeping on the streets within a few more nights.”

“I had noticed. My own pouch looks little healthier, despite what we took from the bounty hunters. Any suggestions?”

“I don’t see swarms of guards, so I bet I know where we’ll be welcome.” I slapped my scabbard, smiling, but he just looked glum. So, when we rode up to the gate and saw where the guards were hiding out of the sun, I dismounted before they could challenge us. I walked up to the nearest, who had his halberd slackly planted, and stood before him, hands on hips, looking disgusted. I’ve been a sergeant enough times to look convincing without half trying, so he straightened up and looked a little more serious before he realized I didn’t work for the same people he did.

“I’m looking for the guard barracks, son. Know where they might be?”

He tried bravado. “Who wants to know?” I held his gaze without blinking, and after he’d stewed a while, to the growing amusement of his buddies, he broke down and told me what I needed. I mounted, tipped an imaginary hat at him, and rode through the gates.

“An impressive demonstration, brother, but might I ask what the point was?”

“Just checking out the local talent. If those men were a fair sample of what they’ve got, I’ll be a general inside of a week. Maybe less. Then I’ll need an aide-de-camp... that’s you, son.”

“I am honored you value me so highly. I think.” We laughed aloud, and it felt good. The streets were clear, probably because most of the town was out in the fields. With room to run, we kicked the horses into a fast trot and found ourselves at the barracks in no time. Out in front, in a broad open area, they had a jousting pole set up, and a crowd had gathered around the fallen body of a make-believe knight who hadn’t managed to miss the swinging pole on its return trip. We sat in the saddle watching as they got him on his feet and half carried him into the barracks, then shared a look.

“And if that is the quality of rider they have here, I shall be leading their chivalry in a week. Then where will you turn for a valet?”

We rode up to the crowd, laughing. Bram had a crazy gleam in his eyes, and I was pretty sure I knew what he was about to do.

“Ho there! Think you an amateur could have a go at your game?” Most laughed in his face, though a few eyed him up and down and did their best to hide their smiles. I wore a look of wide-eyed innocence, sure Bram wouldn’t embarrass himself... I hoped. Over their mutterings, a few voices could be heard, urging him to try. One man pushed through the crowd and handed Bram a lance. The crowd parted again as he rode up and leaned over to whisper in my ear. “Watch this, brother!”

“You sure about this?” Looking at the way the thing was set up, I couldn’t for the life of me figure how he was going to avoid being clobbered when the pole swung around from behind him after he spun it in a circle with a blow from his lance. He handed me his purse.

“Bet on it. I learned the quintain before I learned about women.” He winked. “The quintain is less dangerous.”

With that he eased his horse into a trot, the lance raised above his head as if he were new to this game, dipping and swaying as he rode. Rocking back and forth in the saddle despite the horse’s easy motion, he rode once past the post at a safe distance, then returned to jeers from most of the men. At a good distance from the pole, he reined to a shaky halt, lance swaying wildly 'til he brought it under control. It didn’t much look like he knew what he was doing, but he was faking it so atrociously I wouldn’t get the odds I would’ve gotten if he'd played it straight.

The crowd gave a mocking cheer, though an increasing number of heads began to nod as the bets were exchanged. I joined them before enough figured out what we were about that we'd make no money, but I still felt apprehension. I still couldn’t see how he was going to do it. Bram steadied the horse, then advanced at a trot, the jeers increasing in volume as he neared the quintain. At a certain distance, he goaded the horse into a canter, lowering the lance until it was almost level.

At the last possible moment, just before the lance head struck, he threw his weight forward and towards the pole. There was a solid thwack! as the pole shivered and whipped around, whistling in a circle to attack Bram from behind. As he leaned back into the saddle, it struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder, raising a puff of road dust and almost throwing him from the saddle, and I realized I’d been holding my breath. There were a few cheers, but more jeers that he hadn’t managed to fully avoid the swinging pole.

I seized the opportunity to tap a prosperous looking merchant on the shoulder with my boot. “Ten pieces of silver says he’ll do it again, and stay on his horse.” At that moment, Bram rode up, flushed with success, just in time to hear the wager.

“I don’t know about that,” he said, sounding doubtful. “It almost got me there.” He twisted in the saddle to show the dark smudge on his shoulder.

The merchant beamed, and I relaxed. “Make it twenty and you’ve got a deal.”

We made enough in the next three passes, before the suckers realized they were being conned, to keep us comfortable for a couple weeks. Bram told me afterwards the true skill in striking the quintain was to be outside the pole's arc when you struck it. ‘A simple exercise in guiding your horse.’ What he didn’t answer was whether that first blow from the pole had been part of the act, or whether he’d gotten careless.

Despite our earnings, we didn’t have much trouble signing up with the town guard. Guess they were looking forward to an opportunity to win back their losses.

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Chapter 4: Bram

In hindsight, I had done a stupid thing. Their pride was not wounded much and it would heal even before their depleted purses. But the wound made by our entry into Belfalasian military society would take much longer to heal. Two hunted men should never have attracted that much attention to themselves, even in the comparative safety of Belfalas. Infamy had its own rewards, however, for I rose to command the town’s contingent of some two-score lancers, hired by the council and paid by the week, within a very few days. How the mighty had fallen! Gareth took longer, albeit with a little more scheming and brawling, to find himself in charge of a contingent of foot soldiers. Both positions were brevetted, of course, until such time as we could prove ourselves in harness.

I was uncertain whether I wanted the position, but Gareth and I had few other employable skills beyond mucking out the stables, and as there were many other candidates vying for such employment, that was a last resort and not a promising one. More importantly, and despite my reservations, I admit that it felt good to be leading lancers again, and training these ones would ease my conscience. If they should ever be forced into a war, they would at least have a chance of surviving the experience. There was little evidence these men had ever been blooded, other than by the quintain, and no evidence that any had a grasp of mass combat tactics. The few honest-to-goodness knights that Belfalas did have were the old nobility's impoverished remnants, who had lost their place to a younger generation of merchants; each was a skilled horseman, and a reasonable fighter, but less disciplined than even their humbler colleagues. Knights were all very well, but to become an effective cavalry, they would need to learn how to work together.

I found that Gareth and I had more compatible methods of command than I had expected. It surprised me, as had so much about my comrade. Gareth had never told me he was anything other than a simple mercenary, a breed I had little but contempt for, and he had made much of his inability to hold onto any position of rank for long, but I soon discovered he knew leadership. Our discipline was always prompt and just, and never vengeful, although Gareth tended to be more physical than I did in his corrections. Our resources were open in times of need, at least to those who had a better use for the money than gambling. At the same time, we catered to no one, and though we worked our men hard, we performed the same exercises we required them to do—only better, and with no complaints. In this manner, we gained their respect and a few loyal followers.

But we were also together throughout our off-duty hours, and malicious rumors began to spread about what ‘the two brothers’ did during their private time. This should not have surprised me, for we had inevitably stepped on a few toes fulfilling our duties, and I had made a too-strong impression on a nobility that was over-proud of their martial skills. In retrospect, when I considered how lax discipline had been before we arrived, and recalled the number of men we had been promoted above, ‘a few toes’ took on the appearance of a small multitude.

Things got out of hand when several of my lancers were beaten badly in a tavern brawl after trying to defend my name against a larger group of infantry. Proud though I was that our men had begun to feel that strongly about us, we knew the rivalry could not be allowed to escalate into violence. We disciplined the men involved, but the trouble continued to simmer. Thus it was that we found ourselves in the Maiden’s Head tavern one night, discussing the matter.

“Blast it!” Gareth slammed his fist on the table, slopping ale onto its scarred surface. “We’ve been agreeing for the past week the problem exists. Let’s do something about it.” Glaring across the table, he raised his chipped mug in a defiant salute, then drained it in a single long swallow.

More docile, I raised my brandy snifter and sipped its fragrant amber contents. “Agreed, brother, but have you any good suggestions how?” He remained silent, scowl deepening. I shared his feelings, for despite my outward calm, I was seething. These townsmen merchants and farmers were worse than chivalry with their petty intrigues, and the mercenaries they employed were no better than their masters. I knew then what had to be done, though it meant being alone for a small time, and an earlier departure from town than we had planned. I told him my idea in a careful whisper, and he agreed with an almost sadistic gleam in his eyes.

The two brothers were about to have a dramatic falling out.

***

Unfortunately, as the proverb goes, ‘the best laid strategems of serfs and savants go oft astray’. Two days would be required for our preparations to reach completion, but early on the second day I received a message summoning me to the office of Lord Rothsbane, the noble who commanded the town’s military. Rothsbane, a member of the town’s governing council, was fit, slender and elegant, in dramatic contrast with the decrepit old men and pudgy merchants who were his colleagues. He was also, rumor held, a talented knight who had risen to his position through a combination of ability, intrigue, and family wealth.

Pushing aside my work, a complicated tactical problem I had been assigned to test my suitability for my current post, I belted on my sword and a clean cloak and followed the messenger. I arrived at my commander’s office to find an infuriated Gareth already there. This was only to be expected, since he and Rothsbane detested each other from the moment they met, and Gareth’s rise had disturbed Rothsbane more than my own promotion—though not enough to prevent him from recognizing my brother's ability and rewarding it. For this reason, he took endless pleasure in consulting Gareth on matters of policy, then ignoring the advice he received. I saluted, watching his body language until he bade me to be seated.

“Bram, is it true that you came from Amelior?” His question took me off guard. We had our suspicions his men were monitoring our private conversations, but this depth of knowledge was unexpected. Gareth gave me a slight affirmative nod, but I answered slowly and with considerable care.

“Yes, Sir. But that is many years in my past, and I owe them no allegiance.” I was rewarded by an extravagant look of relief, though Rothsbane ignored Gareth's I-told-you-so look.

“Why do you ask?”

“One of your colleague’s men was brawling with one of your men last night.” He scowled a warning. “When Gareth, here, pulled the two apart, the drunkard muttered that he'd ‘get his when Amelior arrived’.” He paused dramatically. “Bram, I believe this man to be an Ameliorite spy.” I had a premonition I knew where this was leading, but I kept my face nonchalant.

“I told you I am loyal, Sir. What has this to do with me?” Knowing my own plans, I repressed a twinge of conscience at this half-lie. A triumphant look spread across Rothsbane’s thin face as he prepared to reveal his masterwork of strategy, and I quailed, my worst fears realized.

“Very simple—elegantly so I might add. It will be announced tomorrow that Ameliorite spies are known to be within the town walls. That same day, you and this fellow Daran will be arrested and sent to the dungeons to await trial. Naturally, you two spies will be penned together. There, you shall extract such information from him as you can before he is executed.” He leaned back in his chair, smug and self-satisfied.

“And if he is innocent?” Then, an afterthought. “And what of my own career?” The situation looked even worse than I had feared.

“The rogue is not innocent, trust me. As for you—well, we shall have it announced the very next day that your cunning ploy to draw out the spy worked, and you will be returned to your post with a commendation.” His mouth smiled, but his eyes remained coldly predatory and I wondered what I had done to earn such enmity. “So. Dismissed.”

Stiff-backed, I rose and saluted, then fled the room. I waited a short distance down the hall until Gareth joined me. Seeing no one else in the hallway, he winked. “Looks like this’ll put a crimp in our plans, no?”

“You suspect only the half of it. It seems our leader grows worried that my rise through the ranks, combined with my hypothetical chivalric background, may threaten his position. Which is understandable, since his own background bears a more than superficial resemblance to my own. I fear that once I have done his dirty work, an accident will befall me in his dungeons. A tragic loss and all that, followed no doubt by a discreet burial at state expense. It would never do to appear ungrateful.”

Gareth looked less complacent now. “You’re sure he’d do that? I mean, he doesn’t really think he’d get away with it, does he?”

“He does, and he could. Despite his artfully inept appearance, the man is a subtle and competent schemer, and occupies a powerful position on the council.” I paused and contemplated a moment. “Have you stopped to think what this means to you? If you recall, we came to town together and in a conspicuous manner. There are those who will remember that and place you high on the list of undesirables. I wager you would receive no better treatment than mine.” I paused to let that sink in.

“Pack your things. We should be safe enough if we leave tonight.”

“Not so fast, bro’. Ratsbane’s idea has good points. If we’re still planning to move on to Ankur, it’d be nice to have information to sell when we get there.”

I nodded my agreement, but deep currents were swirling around us that I had no understanding of or control over. “Easy for you to say—you will not be the one in the dungeon. But unfortunately, I find myself agreeing with you, though my better judgment warns me against it. A sure sign we have been together too long.” He returned my smile. “All right, I agree. On the condition you can convince me you have a good notion of how I can escape before things turn ugly.”

“Easy enough. I’ll tie our horses in a grove outside the town walls, then come back to pay you a visit. None of the infantry will stop me from leaving town, and the men guarding you will enjoy letting me in to mock your fall from grace. I’ll dismiss them from the dungeon so they’ll be able to say afterwards they had no idea what was going on. To get out of town, we’ll leave by the castle’s bolt hole. One of my men spent time on dungeon duty and knows where the exit is hidden. Good enough?”

“Indeed, my brother. Elegant and sufficiently simple it might even work. I almost look forward to the stain on my reputation. Until tomorrow, then.”

A firm handclasp, and we went our separate ways.

***

My head striking the cold stone floor was what woke me the next morning. I opened my eyes, knowing with a sick feeling our plans had gone wrong and trying to come up fast, fighting, but a heavy boot took me in the belly. That dropped me again, curled into an agonized ball. When my vision cleared, it was to see the circle of infantry boots ringing me in. My gaze traveled up the boots, along the armor, to a circle of unfamiliar, grinning faces.

Rothsbane had hand-picked these men and instructed them to make the arrest as authentic as possible. Mercifully, I lost consciousness early in the beating.

***

Water was dripping down my face, running into my nose and choking me. I was blind and my limbs were missing, but I tried to move anyway. Nothing responded, but the light weight I had felt on me increased enormously. I tried to yell, but no noises escaped my lips. Then the pain returned, and feeling along with it. Regretting its return, I forced my eyes open past clotted blood and looked up.

A face rimmed with short brown hair and liberally decorated with darkening bruises hovered over me, looking every bit as bad as I felt. I got an arm beneath me, and despite the pain, managed to rise enough for him to help me the rest of the way. I brushed aside the dripping sponge, and he stepped back to give me a view of a torch flickering in a stone sconce. The stale odors of blood and urine, fetid from years of confinement and insufficient ventilation, told me what I had already guessed. I was in the dungeon.

No single part of me felt good, but by the same token, everything seemed in working order, with nothing broken. I was too sick and dizzy to get to my feet, and was forced to content myself with a study of my companion. He was already scrutinizing me, wary, unsure of what to make of me. I returned his gaze warily, and saw a thin man, smaller than myself by a good six inches, yet strongly muscled and appraising me with the look of someone experienced in such matters. He had received the same treatment I had, but had recovered faster; perhaps that was because I was an officer, and the opportunity to beat an officer without reprisal had been, to say the least, an uncommon privilege.

I licked my swollen, bloody lips, mustered the best suspicious look I could attain under the circumstances, and croaked something unintelligible. Without a word, he handed me the sponge, and I squeezed out enough water to wash the caked blood down my throat. I tried again. “They told me I would be working alone. Who might you be?”

His wariness relaxed, but not much. “I’m Daran. And yourself?”

“Bram.”

Recognition flickered in his eyes, and a weak grin came to his battered features. “The knight? I’ve risen in status to share a cell with such as you.” Then the wariness was back. “Or perhaps not. Tell me, friend Bram, how many spires the king’s guesthouse in Amelior has, and be quick about it.”

I pursed my lips, wincing. Had it been three years, or four? “It has been long, Daran. If my memory serves,” I touched my blood-matted hair and winced, “there are three. The center spire lost its glass in a bad storm just before I left for Kardmin. I remember because I was in the guesthouse that night with the other officers, preparing for our departure.”

“Wrong,” he said, smiling openly. “There are indeed three spires, but it was the leftmost that was missing its glass. But only an Ameliorite could have known even that much.” The smile faded, replaced by a wistful look. “I too spent my last night at home in that guesthouse. It’s sad we did not meet before, friend. By the time our rescuers come, even the ravens will have abandoned our clean-picked bones, leaving us to languish unattended by the main gates. If they give spies even that much dignity.” He laughed harshly.

I winced once more from an injudicious movement of my head and from what he had said. “Daran, I beg your forgiveness, but I fear I am in no shape for reminiscing. Our hosts were less than gentle when they learned my identity.” With that, I let myself collapse back to the stone pallet, groaning in pain. I needed time to think and to let my body mend.

 ***

I jerked awake to the grating of the food slot opening. “Bram? It’s me, Gareth.” I rose stiffly, still almost unbearably sore, but more in possession of my mental faculties. As the door itself swung wide, I intercepted Daran, who had been readying himself to attempt murder and escape.

“Gareth is our ally! Gareth, meet Daran, a former countryman.”

“A pleasure, I’m sure”. He passed each of us a dagger and moved back through the doorway. “Hurry. We have little time before they change the guards; as it was, I waited through one change before men who knew me came on watch and I convinced them to let me through.” Snatching a torch from its sconce, he led us deeper into the dungeon, counting doorways aloud until he arrived at a noisome cell, ankle-deep in sinister muck. A thick padlock held the door shut, but with a smug grin Gareth handed me the torch and produced a rusty key from his pouch. The grin faded soon enough when the lock refused to yield to the key.

Able to keep my balance solely by leaning against the niter-encrusted wall, I failed to appreciate the humor of the situation. I was preparing a scathing denunciation of the whole plan, after which I intended to pass out, when Daran shouldered past me.

“Here, allow me.” Tearing at his shirt hem, he removed a slim sliver of metal about as long as my index finger. Inserting it in the lock, he poked and prodded for a few moments, bruised face frowning with concentration. “Rusted,” he muttered in explanation. “Bide here.” He ran back to our cell, and returned with some anonymous and unpleasant ooze on the metal strip, then prodded it once again into the keyhole. With a satisfied look, he replaced the strip in its hiding place, then turned the key in the lock. The lock clicked open with a raspy, grating sound. Daran stepped aside, triumphant, giving Gareth room to force the door. By the time Gareth had opened a wide enough gap to let his bulky frame pass, Daran was standing with the look of a man listening.

“Trouble?”

“We’d better hurry, Bram, company’s on the way.” Gareth flung the key into the cell across the hall, then whispered to Daran. “I wouldn’t leave a rat to die in this place, but now that you’re out, you’re not my responsibility. We only have two horses at the tunnel's end, so you’ll have to make your own way from here. Besides,” he grinned maliciously, “we’re not headed west.”

Daran rounded on me. “But your duty...”

“Is to myself and my friend. I left Amelior years ago for good reasons, and I shall not return. You owe us your life and freedom, and we owe you our escape. Shall we leave the scales balanced that way?”

He sized up Gareth for a moment, then smiled, rueful. “Fair enough. I’ll give you time enough to get ahead of me before I follow. If we meet again after that, then remember that I’m a creature of duty.”

“Agreed. Best of luck.” I ducked into the cell behind Gareth. After helping Daran close the door and fill the lock with muck, we passed through a concealed door in the wall and began making our way along the old tunnel. My vision dimmed every now and then from an unusually intense spasm of pain, and I was forced to lean on the rough wall at all times to keep myself from toppling to the floor. I would be all right so long as we kept moving; what I feared was when we stopped.

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Chapter 5: Gareth

Despite the lock’s condition, the bolt-hole itself was in pretty good shape. The ceiling was domed and even though it burrowed deep under the town walls, not a crack showed. At least, not in the poor torchlight.

We traveled as fast as the bad light allowed, Bram following along behind, until the tunnel ended in an overgrown arch close to where I’d hobbled the horses. The moon was nearly full in a cloudless sky, and we could see clearly. I put an arm on Bram's shoulder and pushed him down, ’cause less than a hundred feet away, five men lay in ambush, watching the horses instead of the archway.

“There’s just five, Bram, and they don’t know we’re here. If we sneak up behind, and take out two with daggers, the other three won’t stand a chance.” I looked at him, expecting an objection and getting one.

“No. These men are innocent of any wrongdoing, and if Rothsbane was as clever as I suspect, they will be my men, sent to take you. Let me try something else, and if that fails then perhaps there will be work for your blade after all.” He walked a few steps past me, clumsy, and cleared his throat. All five heads turned in our direction, and they scrambled to their feet, swords drawn. They came closer, cautious, their leader speaking when he had come close enough to see our faces.

“Gareth, we have orders to take you alive, and if you don't resist, we'll do so. Please surrender.”

“You are mistaken, gentlemen. I am Bram, and my companion Gareth comes under my personal protection.” His voice was weak as he chided the embarrassed soldier. “Yes, we are only two, but you have seen us fight and you know that few of you will return home tonight should you press matters. Believe me that we are not traitors and that we have been wronged. Then find an excuse for us to escape, or we shall all regret it.”

Something was clearly wrong, ’cause Bram sagged after his short speech. But the men began discussing the matter quietly, and didn’t notice. Finally, one spoke.

“Sir, may we not come with you? You know we’re good, loyal men.”

Bram’s voice had firmed up, and he'd drawn himself up straight again. He sounded almost sad when he spoke. “No. You would all be hung as deserters in the next town, as we may well be. But rest assured, I recognize you all now, and if I ever have need of good men, I shall seek you out. Now stand aside.”

They did, sheathing swords, and I breathed a sigh of relief. In my haste, I’d forgotten that Bram had just the dagger, no armor save his nightclothes, and was stumbling too much to bode well for his performance in a fight. I couldn’t kick myself yet, so I contented myself with running silently through my considerable list of curses and applying them all where they’d do the most good. Bram had trouble mounting, but he made it into the saddle and kept up with me. Then, not long into our ride, he reigned to a halt and dismounted, going to one knee.

“I realize we must make all haste, Gareth, but I can go no further. If I have no rest, I shall be useless to anyone for a week or more, and you will need me healthy long before we reach Ankur. Rothsbane will not let us escape so easily.” He sat down with a stifled groan, then fell sideways. By the time I'd hobbled the horses again, he was already asleep, breathing ragged, so I squatted down beside him to wait out the night.

***

Morning came, and I leaned over to wake Bram. The blanket I’d covered him with had gotten itself wound up pretty tight during the night, and I had to roll him onto his side to take it off. He woke with a sharp intake of breath as I turned him. Despite myself, I flinched. I’d only seen him by moonlight or by the inadequate light of a smoking torch, and hadn’t understood what they’d done to him.

Blood caked his clothing, ugly brown where it’d been too thick to dry and flake off, and his face was puffy and blue-black with bruises. It looked worse where the blood had been sponged off, and his nose, though still straight, was swollen to about twice its normal size. His lips were cut and swollen, but he'd kept all his teeth. Most of his body was covered with stained clothing, but I didn’t bet it looked any better. His feet, bootless and scraped over the rough tunnel for so long, were a mess, and would be poisoned soon if we couldn’t get them cleaned up. His legs supported him when I helped him up, but he gritted his teeth while I did—they hadn’t spared him there either. I’d given as bad in fights without worrying about it, and I’d taken as bad when they outnumbered me, but I had a lot more body to absorb the damage. I felt sick looking at him.

He saw my look of horror, and managed a smile. “Will you still love me, brother, even if I am no longer so pretty?” His voice was hoarse, but the familiar mirth was there.

I hurt a little too much too try a laugh, but forced a smile anyway. “Someone has to.” I licked my lips, knowing we couldn’t delay, even to spare Bram. “Um, can you ride? We’ll have to find somewhere to hide for a few days.”

“I have little choice. Unless, perhaps, you want to ride back and ask for a physician?” Leaning on me, he tottered over to his horse, and jaw clamped against the pain, tried to mount. It took him three tries, and he wobbled once he was up, but he made it on his own; I was starting to worry I’d have to help him, and neither of us wanted that. I mounted fast as I could and followed him as we rode off at a canter. It wasn’t the fastest pace, but it was easiest on his battered body. Even so, if he hadn’t been part horse himself, he’d never have made it.

Our trip began in an abandoned field near the river, and we'd spent the night in a cow pasture. We made it onto the road and across the ford before the cattle were turned out to graze, and saved ourselves a lot of trouble starting that early. Not long into our ride, Bram had almost fallen asleep and I was forced to tie his horse’s bridle to my saddle and slow to a walk so I could lead him. The farms stretched for miles in this area, and for miles we passed through endless fields of the same plants mixed with fields of bored cows.

By noon, we were forced to halt; Bram had been reeling ever more wildly in the saddle for at least a mile now, and wouldn't stay in the saddle much longer, knight or not. Belfalas was out of sight behind a hill, though the river stretched northward in a great black band. I was relieved we hadn’t yet seen any signs of pursuit—it was even possible they still didn’t know we'd left town. Ahead to the east, the mountains lay a full day’s ride away even for a healthy man. The horses were hot and miserable, but Bram looked worse. Like it or not, we’d have to stop soon, and the only place anywhere near was a small farmhouse made from stacked fieldstone, with a few barns surrounding it.

Well, any port in a storm, as the sailors say.

I kicked my horse into moving again, and eventually we reached the gate. Without dismounting, I leaned down to push open the gate, and we rode through and approached the house. I shouted a loud hello, and got no answer. But as I shouted again, a man rounded the corner of a barn, pitchfork in hand. He was wary, but came within spitting distance before stopping and looking me in the eye.

“We need a place to stay for a day or two. My friend’s been in a fight and can’t ride any farther.” He looked us over again, gaze dwelling on Bram, who was sagging across the neck of his horse. The pitchfork still pointed straight up—not threatening, but he made a point of holding it firmly.

“I’ll harbor no fugitives here. Get yourselves off my land.”

I started to threaten him, then changed my mind. Bram wouldn’t have liked the idea, and besides, then the farmer would have turned us in at first opportunity.

“Please.” It rankled to have to beg from a farmer, but I had no choice—Bram needed time and safety to rest. “Look, I can pay, and we’ll leave at the first sign of trouble. If we’re caught, we’ll swear we forced you.” I unhooked my purse, heavy from gambling and pay, and threw it at his feet.

The farmer stooped to pick it up and hand it back. “Keep your money, son. It’s a good man who offers to pay before trying to take. And fate has been good to us, enough to let us buy our own land from the town, so I guess we owe something in return.” He watched me intensely for a moment more, then lowered the pitchfork. “Put those beasts of yours in the big barn.”

***

Over the next few days, we just stayed put while Bram mended. The farmer’s wife insisted we surrender our weapons while we were there, and I reluctantly agreed. Soldiers came and went, but none stayed to search the farm. Either they were plain stupid, which was likely, or else they weren’t really interested in finding us. I understood that, ’cause a lot of them had had a chance to try my measure with a sword, and none of them would have been eager to try me again with my life on the line.

With a little help from the farmer’s wife, and a lot more help from passing time, Bram began to get better. He still looked like he’d been kicked a few times by his horse, and every time I saw him, I wished I had a few of the guys who arrested him around to entertain me. Instead, I sat by while the farmer took some old leather and knocked together a serviceable pair of boots and his wife added clothing to the few things I’d managed to salvage from Bram’s room before I left. It was a new feeling for me to get this mad over another person’s pain, and a new feeling to be so helpless. Could it have been the bloodoath working? Or maybe it was just guilt 'cause the idea'd been mine from the start—but that didn’t bear thinking on. In the brief time I’d known Bram, I’d come to respect him, and I didn’t respect many men. He was soft on the outside, but soft like a peach: if you weren’t careful and bit too hard, you’d break your teeth on the stone inside.

That was another thing to think about, ’cause the only men I’d ever respected before had never hidden their strength. I wondered what sort of fruit that made me, hard on the outside and getting a little soft on the inside.

***

After a time, Bram was fit enough to ride. His bruises were still clear if you looked, but they were fading and had gotten far enough past the sore stage he could move without wincing. Good thing, ’cause Rothsbane was still looking for us, and if we stayed here long enough, they’d eventually think to search the farms. On the fourth afternoon after our escape, we rode out again. The farmer wouldn’t accept our money, and our thanks only embarrassed him. I had mixed feelings, ’cause we owed him so much, but at the same time, the money would be useful on the road. All the farmer would take for his pains was a promise we’d do the same for someone else.

Even distracted as I’d been, I’d thought through our options, and I knew we’d need the horses to get away, and we’d have to get away through the mountains. For sure, old Ratsbane’d lost enough face to have patrols guarding the approaches to the passes, but I figured we’d get through if we traveled by night. If not, we’d have a fight, and even though I wouldn’t object to a scrap, I wasn’t so sure Bram was ready.

Well, one thing at a time.

So on we rode to the east, moving as fast as we could without risking laming a horse or stumbling off the road into a gully. We made good time, traveling as the sun fell, then continuing on under the moon. We were well within the foothills by dawn, and had plenty of time to hide ourselves in a gully not far from the road. I wasn’t tired after so many days of idleness, so I spent the day on watch, half asleep. Bram just slept. As the sun began to set once again at my back, I woke him and we made ready for our last dash.

We moved on slowly for a few hours, in no hurry, until the moon rose again, then made better time. After a while, we spotted the glow of a campfire up ahead, with a crude barrier straddling the road. Bram saw it too, and we dismounted, leading our mounts off the trail, keeping to the coarse grass to muffle our steps and trying to keep downwind to avoid alerting their horses. I would've preferred to ride, but walking rested the horses and was quieter.

Bram halted when we could see the fire. “Look at them,” he whispered. “Twelve men, and only one on watch... and too near the fire at that.” There was anger in his voice. “How little we changed things, Gareth. If Amelior is coming—and Daran’s presence makes that a distinct possibility—then these undisciplined innocents will be butchered.”

I agreed, but I wasn't going to lose any sleep over it now. We mounted again, and laying our heels to our steeds, galloped up the pass. The man on guard woke up to reality as we rode out of the night and through the firelight. We leapt the low barrier, and Bram was on into the dark before they could do anything to stop him, but the guard made a run at me, waving his sword. That suited me fine, and I let him cut me off. By the time the other eleven were on their feet, I was gone, and the guard was down, moaning. I don’t think I killed him, but it wouldn’t have bothered me a bit if I had.

We slowed our pace once we were out into the dark again. There was no pursuit. The road worsened, becoming little better than a cleared, rocky slope, and we dismounted. We must have missed the main roadway in the dark, and there was no point in breaking a horse’s leg if the guards weren’t pursuing us. With the warning I’d left them, they wouldn’t be too strongly tempted to follow us into another city’s territory, and it would be at least morning before anyone mounted came after us, if anyone did. Bram and I moved along up the moonlit slope, feeling free for the first time since the fight at the inn. Chilly though it was, I was warm and ready to take on the world.

A week of slow walking and riding saw us on the eastern side of the mountains, looking down on the plains surrounding Ankur. Not a mountain to be seen anywhere ahead of us, for which my legs were grateful, and not a pursuer behind. We’d built up a good lead over anyone stupid enough to follow, and anyway, they’d be daft to intrude on Ankur’s lands. Proud boys, these Ankurites, and mighty territorial from all I’d heard.

Even from the foothills where we camped, we could barely see Ankur by day. The checkered fields below stood out, but from this distance, they hid the city well in full light. Not so by night. The minstrel at the inn had told of a festival, and he hadn’t been lying. The moon was shrinking now, and the sky was overcast—though we’d been lucky enough to miss any rain while descending from the pass—so the city lights stood out bright as a bonfire. Well, almost. From what I could see, there was one fine party going on.

If our timing was right, we’d arrive well before the big finish. I looked over at Bram, who’d been pretty quiet since we’d made it into the mountains. You could tell he’d been enjoying the trip, especially once he’d worked out the stiffness remaining after his beating. Guess he likes mountains more than I do. He was quiet, enjoying the silence, and it was nice—nothing more awkward than having to keep a conversation going. It’s good to have a friend you can just be with.

Bram looked up from where he’d been watching the lights. “Look, Gareth, the city is like an island in the midst of a huge lake. No other light anywhere else, not even the hint of one.”

I didn’t mention the scattered lights from farmhouses here and there, and just grinned back at him, anticipating. “Enjoy it while you can, bro’. To me it looks like they’re having a fun time down there, and I’m going to be part of it pretty soon. You too, of course, if you think you can keep up with me. You look like you could use a good drunk and a bad wench. To work off the last of your stiffness, so to speak.”

A resigned sigh. “Of course. Someone has to be there to walk you home when you are too drunk to stand. And I suppose,” he stifled a yawn, “that means me. Good night, Gareth.”

“ ’Night, Bram.”

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Chapter 6: Bram

After so long in my beloved mountains, it felt strange to be back on the plains. Strange, yet comfortable for one brought up as a horseman. Gareth and I rode easily down from the hills, along a slope that descended towards the horizon as far as the eye could see, and towards the walled town of Ankur, taking our time and enjoying the ride. Even from a distance it looked large, though not so sprawling as Belfalas had been. The few travelers we passed greeted us cheerfully and we responded in kind, spirits rising as we drew nearer to the celebration. Midsummer day was near, and the citizens of Ankur were rising to the occasion.

When we reigned to a halt some distance from the walls, I paused to get an impression of the town to which we were considering tying our futures. A broad moat, forty feet or more across, was filled with water that lapped at the base of tall, dry-laid stone walls. The walls themselves were quite a sight, chipped and stained in places yet imposing and still sturdy enough to put up quite a fight if called upon to do so. Had there been any doubt, the appearance of strength in repose was punctuated by the ugly snouts of scorpions, ballistas, and suchlike weapons projecting above the crenellated towers. Though it was a time of peace, armed men were nonetheless evident upon the walls, and repair crews were to be seen here and there, attending to weak spots. All in all, Ankur was as practical as Belfalas was not; what townsfolk often forget is that the only possible time to prepare for war is during peace.

The implications were disturbing to the extent they reminded me of problems at our backs, but at the same time, the sight comforted me, foretelling secure refuge.

One point attracted my curiosity, however, an anomaly about the land surrounding these formidable defenses. “Gareth, where is the river?”

“Pardon?”

“I saw no large source of water when we descended from the hills, just a few springs here and there. Yet all that water in the moat must come from somewhere.”

He chuckled. “Story I heard is that they’ve planted their town atop an underground river, and that they pump up as much water as they need. Nice if you have a siege to stand off.” He bent forward and patted his horse’s neck. “It comes out of the ground as a large spring farther east, out into the plains, then joins up with a big river. Anyway, it’s not water I’ve a thirst for. Feel well enough to race me to the gates?”

I gave him my most condescending look, and as his face fell, I kicked my horse in the ribs and gave him his head. That gained me a respectable lead before Gareth recovered enough to pursue me. I looked back over my shoulder to see how he was doing, and laughed to see him crouched so grimly over his mount. Down across the plains we raced, wind whistling around us to the beat of the hooves. The horses caught our mood too, and after so many days of restraint, responded with a will, expending all the energy they had been forced to hold back on the mountain road.

To my surprise, Gareth fell no further behind. I was the better rider by a considerable margin, but my brother had a natural flair for horsemanship, an impressive tenacity, and the larger and the more powerful mount. Nonetheless, I beat him handily to the moat. A dozen guards waited on our side of the drawbridge, and despite the peaceful day and the amount of traffic, our approach had not gone unnoticed. Each guard held a well-polished halberd, and two blocked our passage as we slowed our sweaty horses to a sedate walk. I dismounted, embracing my mount around his neck, watching a flushed Gareth dismount with much less grace. We led our horses a little closer to the guards, who awaited us with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension.

Their leader exchanged glances with his men, then shrugged. “I bid you good day, gentle sirs, and welcome you to Ankur. Now if you don’t mind telling me, what in the world do you think you’re doing, riding up here like that?”

“We just could not bear to miss any of the last few days of the festival.” I gave him a lopsided smile.

The guards all relaxed at that, and smiled back. “Fair enough. I wouldn’t want to keep two such enthusiastic men from their sport, so in you go.” The halberds remained firmly in place. “But first,” he apologized, “His Highness has levied a gate toll for all those attending the celebrations. To help pay for the damage, you understand. That will be three coppers apiece, please, plus one for each horse.”

“Why one piece for the horses?” I asked, curious.

“Horses don’t do as much damage when they get drunk. They also don’t get assigned to labor detail if they’re caught doing the damage.” His smile remained friendly, but there was a polite warning in his voice.

Gareth scowled and muttered something, but his exuberance returned when I tossed the requisite fee to the guard. The halberdiers winked and moved aside as we remounted and clattered across a stone quay onto the wooden drawbridge. Our horses’ hooves made a deep drumbeat beneath the walls, more than thirty feet thick at this point, dim and chilling in the absence of any direct sunlight. But enough light remained to reveal the murder hole's brooding arrow slits, and the portcullis at each end of the stone tunnel. Memories arose of a similar place three years in my past, and an old arrow wound twinged in remembrance. I shuddered, and kicked my horse into a faster gait.

Inside the gate, there was a broad open area. Opposite us stood a guard barracks, squatting in the sun and indistinguishable from its brethren in cities everywhere. A squad of guards stood at parade rest in the sun, being lectured by an officer, looking uncomfortable even from here. The rest of the square was fronted by inns and taverns separated by broad cobbled streets. The streets were uncrowded despite the abundance of traffic, perhaps a result of overvigorous celebration the previous night... or of a marshalling of resources for the coming night.

A small breeze sprang up, bearing the accumulated odor of several thousand people half masked by myriad more pleasant scents. I wrinkled my nose, not sure the smell pleased me after so long in the countryside's fresh air.

“Well, my brother, business or pleasure first? Do we find an inn, or try to peddle our information?”

Gareth looked around, displeased. “Not much going on. We might as well get the unpleasantness over with first so we can enjoy ourselves. Besides, I’ve a hunch we may have trouble finding a room, and a grateful king could go a long way towards finding one. Lead on.”

After procuring directions from a helpful native, we struck out for the palace.

***

“And I said you’re not seeing no one, no how!” yelled the perspiring fat man at the main entrance to the palace. Embarrassed, all guardsmen within earshot looked pointedly away from us. Gareth held the horses, looking innocent and guileless. The expression did not suit him well.

“My dear sir, you fail to understand our problem,” I repeated, exasperated, for at least the fourth time. “My friend and I have but just arrived from the west bearing information that is vital to the security of His Majesty. Now, if you would be so kind as to send a page to ask...?”

Our fat friend, face growing redder by the second, had gathered himself for another outburst when a new player entered the scene, leading a powerful horse.

“What seems to be the problem here?” The voice, quiet and self-assured, came from a strong man of about my own height, dressed in a work-stained guardsman’s uniform. Appalled, my opponent retreated a few steps before the newcomer, red flush of anger vanishing beneath a spreading pallor. Gareth's war whoop cut off his stammered reply, as my companion released our horses and hurled himself at the guardsman, taking the other guards so much by surprise that none reacted in time to stop him. His victim, hand halting within an inch of his sword, cast aside his own dignity and met Gareth with equal abandon. When the dust cleared and the two had picked themselves off the ground, the palace functionary was nowhere to be seen, but several soldiers, mistakenly but reasonably assuming an attack on one of their own, had drawn swords and surrounded Gareth. Upon seeing the other man's smile, they backed off, awkward and unsure what action to take.

“Bram, meet my old buddy Jonathon. John... Bram.” We shook hands, appraising each other, and what I saw was an older and more thoughtful version of Gareth. He smiled in warm acceptance, which I took as a compliment. John had the charisma of a natural leader, and an air of dignity despite his dusty and disheveled appearance. John clapped Gareth on the shoulder and his smile broadened.

“What brings you all this way, Gareth, as if I didn’t know?” He waved an arm at a wine cart wheeling past the open gateway. “You’re awfully far from your usual haunts.” A gentler hand motion, and two guards approached and led our horses away. Judging by their alacrity, I began to reappraise John’s position here upwards. Meanwhile, Gareth’s smile had faded a little, and he was no doubt remembering our reasons for leaving Belfalas.

“This isn’t the place to speak of it.” John took the hint and led us into the palace. I kept my eyes open and in consequence, did not miss the richer decor and ever haughtier denizens as we moved deeper into the old building. Gareth noticed too, and when we reached the lavishly appointed chamber that was our destination, pointed it out.

“John? These aren’t the quarters of any run-of-the-mill mercenary.” He left the question unasked.

“Simple enough, Gareth,” he replied, urging us towards upholstered armchairs. As he talked, he moved about the room collecting glasses and a large bottle of brandy. “I decided my old bones had had enough of wandering and that it was time to give up the mercenary's carefree life and make something of myself. You always did say I was out of place among the free brothers, so I took your advice and here I am. Cheers!” He raised his glass to us, sipped, and sat down. “Thirty-nine years old and I run this place for His Highness, at least in so far as military matters go.” There was considerable pride in his voice, and from what I had seen of the town’s defenses, it was well deserved. But there was little arrogance in that self-confidence, which, considering the man’s humble beginnings, was a rare combination.

“But don’t let that change anything. I haven’t forgotten my friends, so when we’re alone, it’s ‘John’ to both of you. It’ll be a pleasant change from all these status-crazed townsmen. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s hear your story.”

Gareth told him just about everything, only omitting the least flattering details of our stay with Grace. The brandy was better than anything I had tasted in months, and it mellowed me, so I resisted the temptation to correct his omissions. When Gareth was done, we sat in silence, savoring the fine liquor, but I could see John’s mind turning over the facts. Rising at long last, he paced over to the door, where he hung his coat. Then he turned on his heel and came back to stand in front of us.

“Are you two sure of all of this? I mean sure, not just satisfied that events happened as you’ve told me. How well do you know this Daran, and how much do you trust this... witch?” He spoke the last word with evident distaste.

I sipped at the brandy before responding. “I do not know the spy at all, but his story rang true; I do trust Grace absolutely. Both were telling the truth as they knew it, if not the absolute truth nor the whole truth. We may have made a leap of logic that was not merited, but I believe the conclusions fit the facts too well to be discarded out of hand.” I bit my lip. “I was a knight of Amelior before I took up this new life and before I met Gareth. We...” I hesitated, then corrected myself. “They were never empire builders while I served them, despite being desperate for resources to fight their wars, and I am unaware of aught that would have caused this to change.”

John blinked. “I'd heard that Amelior made for an uncomfortable neighbor, though you know well there has been scant commerce with the West since the Gordons took the throne of Volonor. I’m working on rumor here, however.” His voice held a question.

“Amelior has had good reasons for its militarism.” I paused, wondering how best to justify my people’s reputation. “Are you aware of what awaited our race in this land in the years after the Exodus?”

John nodded. “To some extent. The old tales tell us this land was not uninhabited when we arrived, and that our presence was never welcome.”

I took a deeper sip of brandy, then poured more. “The old tales are truer than people in the East think. There were at least three races that shared this land before we arrived. The Elves could not abide our iron, and withdrew into the deep forests of the southwest after warning us not to follow. The Naugrim, also called Dwarves, were never numerous, and were happy to leave us the plains so long as we left them in peace in their mountains. But the dark folk, the Goblins of children’s faery tales in the East, disputed possession of the plains with us.”

Goblins?” Gareth snorted, then subsided at my look.

“Yes, Gareth, Goblins. Our peoples drove the Goblins westward over the mountains when we arrived, so that not a one remains in the East, and indeed, not a one has been seen here for many generations. But in the West, they remain a powerful force, and it is all Amelior can do to protect our fields and our people against them. Most times, they attack in small groups, burning an isolated farm and taking the farmers with them for what purpose we know not. Other times, they swarm at us in armies that outnumber us tenfold. Each trained warrior is a match for five or more Goblins on foot, and perhaps twice or thrice that many from horseback, but each such war is costly. As a result, Amelior has demanded tribute from surrounding cities such as Kardmin, and has taken tribute in weapons and men when aid was not offered.”

“Why have we heard nothing of this?” John asked quietly.

“For one thing, because the enmity of the Gordon kings has kept us from communicating with the East on any official level. For another, because those few who have fled east have been met with derision when they told their tales.”

John nodded, accepting my words. “We have heard tales of emissaries sent as far east as Belfalas to request assistance... without success. And the witch?”

“Grace’s story is a reasonable explanation for what has happened, unless you believe in coincidence on a massive scale. The minstrel Dariel is here, and if you combine that with what we have been through already, it suggests that we face a very serious problem.”

John’s face and voice turned grim, and he resumed his pacing. “I agree that the facts as we know them fit too well for coincidence and, the minstrel aside, certain intelligences I have obtained support key portions of your story. That being the case, and leaving aside the witchery for the moment, how long would you estimate that we have?”

“Months, years... who knows? It all depends on how desperate Amelior has become, and how successful in their intrigues. But unless I miss my guess, it seems likely they have become desperate enough to intrude on the East. The attack on the border keep north of Kelfan and the Baron's assassination at Kelfan remove the main obstacles to Amelior’s entry into the Eastcountry. Given the loose alliances in this area, Amelior should overcome any opposition. If Daran was correct and current in his information, we can expect to hear of Kelfan's fall by this autumn, and earlier still if the city’s rulers remember Kardmin and surrender quickly. Since Amelior's leaders are not fools, they will sit tight and consolidate their gains over the winter, drawing strength from their captives to swell their armies. In the spring, Arden should be taken by siege, since their granaries will be near-empty. They may never even hear of Kelfan's fall before Amelior is pounding on their doors. After Arden, Amelior could march straight for Belfalas before the snows claim the passes.

“It might be more sensible to wait and to consolidate once more, but Ameliorites are often impatient, and I doubt they could afford an extended campaign... the Goblins will leave them little free time once they learn that a significant portion of Amelior’s forces have moved east. Indeed, they must strike swiftly and consolidate their gains so they can return to their real war. Securing Belfalas would provide sufficient supplies of food and trade materials that Amelior could subsequently hold all their conquests and return to their own wars. But as it is likely Belfalas will surrender without the loss of a single drop of merchant or farmer blood, Amelior may grow more ambitious. With the benefits of that logistical position, and an easy mountain pass to defend against Ankur, they would be unassailable. Depending on who leads their armies, perhaps even Ankur would hear their demands before another winter has passed.”

Gareth spoke. “You don’t seem too impressed by our chances, bro’. Amelior won’t have that easy a time of it.”

John spoke for me. “Maybe not, but he’s correct. You’re a fine strategist, Bram. Kelfan has been ruled weakly since the Baron's death, and its armies have shrunk over the years. Arden will be a much tougher nut to crack, and will extract a good price before they surrender. But they’re too small to resist for long, have a weak tactical position, are too dependant on outside trade for supplies, and are too riddled with spies and traitors. Belfalas, as you well know, has no hope unless held brilliantly and heavily reinforced. Most likely, they will surrender rather than risk a confrontation. But we’re ready here, and we have the land on our side.” He smiled in satisfaction, and I recalled the discipline and morale of the guards we had seen. I also had not missed his casual comment about the state of Kelfan’s government; John had developed a formidable network of spies.

“What’s perhaps more to the point is that we’re forewarned now, and we can be ready within a few months, not that we should need to be. Volonor is not close, either in distance or in friendship, but our relations with them are good and as you know, the Gordons have sworn mighty oaths that Amelior will never venture unopposed into the Eastcountry. Somorrah can be expected to remain neutral, but if things go badly, they’re opportunistic enough to turn on Volonor and seek their freedom. In short, we’d better watch our backs.” John had a distant look while he thought aloud. Gareth and I exchanged glances, respectful of this man who had once been nothing more than a mercenary, with no goals more pressing than survival and plunder.

“Gareth, Bram, I judge you both to be good men, and if we’re right in our conjecturing, Ankur will need good men. No, don’t speak! Let me finish. If you’re willing, I can pull rank and see that you both get junior command positions, or that you’ll work directly with me if you prefer. I don’t want your decisions now; the festival is almost at its peak, and after what you’ve both been through, you’ll need time to relax. When you recover, come back and tell me what you’ve decided. Fair enough?”

We rose and shook hands preparatory to leave-taking. Gareth slapped John across the shoulders, staggering him. “Do you reallyneed to ask?”

Both looked at me, and I could see John had read me right. I hesitated. “Let me ponder your offer. My future lies in the East, and although my allegiance lies here now, fighting my countrymen will be a difficult thing because I understand why they have come.” John’s gaze hardened, but his smile never wavered. I went on, pretending I had missed the change. “You will need time to consult with your own people first in any event, as well as with Volonor. And as you say, we are too tired to make any hasty decisions.”

We accepted a letter of reference to a nearby innkeeper in place of rooms in the palace—which would have formalized an arrangement I was not yet ready to formalize—then said our farewells. As we left, my mind was in turmoil. Without intending to, I had slipped into old patterns of thought, and had been on the verge of accepting John’s offer outright. But I was not eager to contemplate fighting another war, particularly against my former countrymen, and that reluctance was in obvious conflict with my commitment to Gareth.

I had a difficult decision awaiting me, and was weak enough to be grateful for the opportunity to delay it for a time.

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